The slain enemy
Think of me without mercy in their eternal sleep
Ghosts ascend the stairways of the house, rounding the corners
The ghosts I picked up from the roads
Collecting them from the sins around other people's necks.
The sin hangs at the throat like a burden
It is there I nurture my ghosts and feed them
The ghosts that float like black horses in my dreams.
With the vigor of the dead the latest Blues song rises
While I reflect on jealousy
The door is warped open, breath seeps through the cracks
The breath of the river
The breath of drunkards, the breath
Of the woman who awakes to her past in a public park.
When I sleep
I see a horse grazing the grass
When I fall asleep,
The horse watches over my dreams
On my table in Ramallah
There are unfinished letters
And pictures of old friends
The manuscript of a young poet from Gaza
And opening linesthat flap in my head like wingsِ
I want to memorize you like that song in first grade
The one I hold onto
With no mistakes
The lisp, the tilt of the head, off key
The small feet pounding the concrete so eagerly
The open palms pounding the benches.
They all died in the war
My friends and classmates
Their little feet
Their eager little hands… they still pound the floors of each room
They pound the tables;
And still pound the pavements, the backs of the passersby, their shoulders.
Wherever I go
I see them
I hear them.
Additions to the Past
The letters in the widow's room
In the straw basket
On the bed purged of sleep
In the intention to fast which lurks
In the air of the corridor.
The vegetables, normally purchased in the morning
The dawn bus on a Thursday
The forbearance…, where holy phrases are
In the carvings
The edge of the cupboard from the crack of the door
The door itself… where the assembled hymns
Flutter like kerchiefs on the darkness of the plain.
The shadow of the air
The novel she has not returned to the shelf,
She cannot remember!
Its heroes fall dead to the ground
She sweeps them up
One after the other
With her broom, her reproaches and her prayers
The letters remain unopened
Return through the crack of the door
To steal the flower vase
The orange sheet
And the covers
An Enemy Descends the Hill
As he descends,
As we watch him descend,
As he conveys to us that he is
About to descend
His illicit presence
As he carefully listens at the shrubs.
His fear as he descends
The withheld silence
That he is not 'us'
He seizes a flower
Just a flower
With no message to convey
No vase for it.
From the hill
He can see
The military checkpoint
He can see the desperate people;
The slopes of the mountains;
The only path
Where their feet will leave imprints in the rocks
In mud and water.
He can also see
The losses from the hill
Left hurriedly behind
The equivocation of shadows
Where the mustached enemy
Resembles the dead Arabs here.
In the slopes of the mountains
The caves will all appear peaceful
The road always look the same.
As he descends
The caves in the mountains
Continue to stare
They blink in the cold.
How strange are the days of salt
It is as if they belong to others
And like a well-plotted tragedy
Just brought to a close
They begin to breathe as we remember them
The hills forgotten in the boredom of the slopes
The mountains that aspire towards the west
The wandering caravans of death
The faith of the dead, complete.
The hands that emerge from the darkness
To tell you everything
The deep fraternity that does not lead to wisdom
The words no longer suitable for high places
ٍStrange are the days of salt
Now alone in the abyss
Disparaged like rottenseed
And while we ascend,
Because that's all we can do
The days roll away into the distance behind us,
Abandoned, and can never return
Our dark complexions
Our attempts at sleep
…..Names, endlessly long titles
Proclaiming a countryside
No longer necessary.
How strange are the days of salt
They are not even worthy to be remembered.
The Camp Prostitute
What those intend who visit her house
Is palpably felt
So pure, so proud.
Those who stayed late in the fields
Will find her hanging near the little trees
The five mossy steps
Then the bougainvillea plant by the door.
Her bracelets jingling in their sleep like a phantom horse
Her undergarments coloring their dreams
Her breasts well trodden like the path to the mill
Her ritual movements between the bed and the wash basin
Like a popular song all the rage.
The still life on the wall
The sheets and two pillows
The scent of cheap cologne
The nails behind the door
Where the smell of their clothes still lingers
The jasmine outside the window
The numbed convolutions of her body
The strain pervading her silence
The intentions of those passing through to her house
The passersby and the visitors,
The students, clerks and chickens
The vans, the guards and the dogs,
The porters, the cats and the vegetable sellers
The fathers and sons
All those who have left their smell in her broken sleep
They were all of them there
Behind the kids
So pure, on their way to her destination.
The Sleeper's Song
I ascend the seven levels
In sleep you are
An elegy to the departed
An icon of censure
The seven levels of sleep
All of them.
I switch on the light
So that the dead
Can see the dream.
Translated by May Jayyusi and Alan Brownjohn
For East-West Nexus/PROTA*
Beirut, August 1982
How I wish he had not died
in last Wednesday’s raid
as he strolled through Nazlat al-Bir —
my friend with blond hair,
as blond as a native of the wetlands of Iraq.
all summer long the war was weaving its warp and weft.
And that song, O Beiruuuuut!,
sang from every single radio
in my father’s house in Al-Karama —
and probably in our old house in Beit Jala
(which, whenever I try to find it in the maze of the camp,
refuses to be found).
That song sang of what we knew —
it sang of our streets, narrow and neglected,
But the song did not sing about that summer in Beirut,
it did not tell us what was coming —
aeroplanes, bombardment, annihilation…
The song was singing while my friend from Iraq —
who’d thought I was Moroccan from the countryside there —
limped bleeding to his death…
His blond hair will never fade,
a beam of light seared into memory.
A Young Man from Al-Jaheer Expresses His Regrets…
(Bir Zeit, 1997)
I must leave this town:
a town where the sun never shines on me,
where there’s never any shade,
a town with no bar to drown all my sorrows,
a place where no one even knows I exist!
I must move on surreptitiously,
with no regrets nor bitterness….
I don’t have a place in the official celebrations,
nor a seat of my own in the gardens.
Those birds have shown me the way:
I may not have a horse
but I have nothing to fear
there are no walls around me….
But I must leave at once!
I must throw its old laws to the dogs,
and grind its traditions in the dirt,
then slip away, under cover of darkness….
It was night the first time I got here —
the days before my hair had turned grey —
I fetched up here adrift and mixed up,
as rootless as a houseplant in a tub.
In those days my stride was firm,
and my voice never wavered,
In those days I never fell silent….
Now I’m exhausted by the gossip of this place,
I’m worn out by the corruption,
by those obtuse, hotheaded women
by the drunken, deluded parades every night,
by the babbling old men, the fanatics wailing and repenting….
I must get out!
I must shake this town’s dust from my feet….
So while the shepherds return from the well,
while the indolent elders sneak back from their dens,
while the preachers come out of the darkness,
and the windows slam shut in the sandstorm,
by the time they are wallowing in their dreams
and the lines become blurred
between the sacred and the profane,
where day becomes night….
— I’ll be away on the far side of the valley,
by the edge of the cedar woods, on top of the hill.
GuideHe pointed for us . . .
in the wreckage of houses
after the explosion
his fingers in the wall-gap
this way . . .
Is there still time
to tell her,
I've come back
with a bullet in my heart
There is my pillow
I want to lie down
If the war
ever comes knocking,
tell them: he's taking
Four sisters from Zakaria
climb the hill alone
in black clothes.
Four sisters sigh
facing the thicket.
Four sisters in the dark
read wet letters.
A train coming
from Artouf* passed
behind the picture.
A horse carrying
a girl from Zakaria*
neighs on the ridge
across the plain.
In the gorge
clouds slowly pass.
from Zakaria, alone
in black clothes
on the hill.
* Zakaria and Artouf are two Palestinian villages in the Khalil (Hebron) area whose occupants were forced to leave in 1948.
The above poems were translated by Sargon Boulus from the author's selected poems 'Tarteeb al-wasf', ['Putting description in Order'], Ramallah, 1998. Reprinted here from Banipal No 12.
How clear it was the singing of the Moroccans who were swimming
on the river’s face before sunset, the women who leaned on the bridge
among their children and vegetable baskets and tombs of saints…
Distant Rabat with its people where al-Andalus hides,
Rabat, whenever I say I shall leave its halls, I spread for my will a rug
and it spreads a rug
if only you would lean my way
or remember me,
that was the river’s song,
my heart would quiver
and you’d make me happy
and the gazelle in the hills
would find its way…
but Fatima was only a song
released by boats
and dead women on the bridge
in the nights of Rabat.
The Bird Follows Me
In the year two thousand or a little before, there maybe was
a prelude that inhabited me, it resembled summer
in the rooms of bachelors,
I used to spin it in my speech…
Like a pleasant gait on en edge of marble or its dusting
from what the hoofs of mules leave behind
as they climb up the wadi…
“…in my house
women give birth to rings
and disappear from the world behind the door,
here is the paradise of the one I love
and the journey
of the one who saw…”
A prelude like other preludes
I didn’t retrieve from muttering
Like a straw bird
It follows me…
I have a tune in the melody
with which I did not arrive
but it is my only gold
It has the probability of improvisation
the tenderness of verbs
and the solidity of narration
As if secret builders Cavafy had awakened
were passing through the hills
and started digging by my pillow!
Carving on Wood
In the house of cactus
I finish what I started
a novel for death and the dead
and a chapter on bird matters
my house is my journey and the wind my door
windows are what I saw
I lost my fortune
but kept my acumen
a blind man with sight by the falcon’s nest sculpts
my solitude so I’d be loved by a variety of selections
I cajoled hyenas and besides myself
trusted no one
I left no land to return to
and kept no road to arrive
in the house of cactus when I came to
I had a full name
and golden hands
“and untethered to remembrance
The Stranger in His Icon
Nature that has left me hopeless
became arid in the fields
my abandoned homes in others’ memories and feats
the girls on the pier
with ill-intent as they wait for me
the wolf’s dream in its wilderness
the hyena desiring me and its neighbor
the cypress I tallied
the roads I folded
become distant and similar
while I forget and remember
I, who exaggerated everything,
go as alone as my mother had birthed me
and sit in my icon.
Aside form her fingers, she got no sleep
she was there suspended in remembrance
patching up their dreams in a dim light
one bell was crimping the path to her house
one patient bell ascending the hillside
of junkyard and convent
One bell was limping behind the fence
and the Muslim cemetery
and passing in the privacy of jinn and sleeping dead
by the springs on the boulevards of birds
One bell for stranger women
for the few wishes and for summer
for old outfits and school books
and boys dead by the attic doors
One bell ascending the hill behind the ancient time
behind the shrubs on the foot-slope
where old dogs are tucked in the story
and the houses are gathered in the patient air
One bell was calling her by her name while ascending
perhaps to see her letter cursive
above the pine grove
A Picture of the House in Beit Jala
He has to return to shut that window,
it isn’t entirely clear
whether this is what he must do,
things are no longer clear
since he has lost them,
and it seems a hole somewhere within him
has opened up
Closing up the cracks has exhausted him
mending the fences
wiping the glass
cleaning the edges
and watching the dust that seems, since he has lost the things,
to lure his memories into hoax and ruse.
And from here his childhood appears as if it were a trick!
inspecting the doors has fully exhausted him
the window latches
the condition of the plants
and wiping the dust
that has not ceased flowing
into the rooms, on the beds, sheets, pots
and on the picture frames on the walls
Since he has lost them he stays with friends
who become fewer
sleeps in their beds
that become narrower
while the dust gnaws at his memories “there”
…he must return to shut that window
the upper story window which he often forgets
at the end of the stairway that leads to the roof
Since he has lost them
he aimlessly walks
and the day’s small
purposes are also no longer clear.
He Wasn’t Sleeping
There’s a helpless woman in his sleep
a recluse woman preoccupied with simple thoughts
and needless accessories
A woman who enters his room when he dozes off
she stares at his heart
exactly there, his heart,
then takes a flower out of the vase
before he wakes to count the flowers missing one
Whenever he dozes off he finds himself roving
in endless arches
and roads in watercolor
affixed to the intimate scent of a woman’s absence
as if he were strolling
in the memories of the missing flowers
at five thirty AM
she stood behind the glass
and stared at his eyes
and he wasn’t sleeping.
He Thought Long of Going Back There
He thought of going back there
where he had left her listening
in a blue shirt and short sleeves
There was a man crossing the street without looking
whereas his infidelities were behind him stumbling like a heap
of obese women, whereas he was going down the three steps
careful not to bump into the pampered flower pot
He thought long of going back
where he had left her listening
with honey eyes and a cloven heart
A few boys were swinging intensely
from the peach tree he has no memory of
while he was trying, in vain, to discern the steps
and move the bougainvillea pot out of the way
When, suddenly, the bell rang
the ancient bell on the hill
the hill which, since that night, the bougainvillea has covered,
that night when the eleven brothers killed
their only sister.
Everything As It Was
What led him over there
in such cold weather?
Not longing or curiosity
but maybe fear or perhaps it was
the chill in the room
though everything appeared as it was
as he wrote in an old poem he could not finish
“…Everything is still as it was
since we had gone out to war,
since childhood or before,
perhaps the sun of those years made the white curtains grow
fainter and the pebbles
in the hallway became rounder
and shinier or the grass had grown longer
or dried up!
The three mirrors are as they were
the sheets the shelf
and the broom
the family photo
the leather-bound Quran
the rosary of the deceased grandmother
everything was as if nothing had changed.
we who fell upon the war
from the school bell…”
That was in the summer of 1986 in Damascus, his mother was still alive then
and there was an opening somewhere in that poem, more like a hole that followed him,
he’d hear it stumble behind him wherever he went, especially when toward the anxious
endings in his dreams, and even there, they, the boys, would continue to stare at him
and send out their perplexing gestures, the boys who did not return after the midnight
patrols, and the dead who went back to sit on their houses’ doorsteps
Now he feels a saunter in him through that opening, without knowing exactly where it is,
and where the poem is, in its painful incompleteness
Dampened with patience
overtaken by haste
he thought this kind of trickery
would befit the ending!
He could replace the “grandmother” with the “mother”
and observe the disintegrating plaster above the door’s awning
the upside down chair
where the mallow flowers stumble and recover
without being nursed
and the gentle light through the back window
still in its same old place
Only the jasmine continued its climb, its eyes on the ceiling.
Translated from the Arabic by Fady Joudah
Ghassan Zaqtan was born in 1954 near Bethlehem and lives in Ramallah. He has worked with the Palestinian resistance movement and was editor of "Bayader" literary magazine of the Palestine Liberation Organization. He is editor-in-chief of the quarterly poetry journal "Al-Shoua'ra" and is co-founder and director of the House of Poetry in Ramallah. Zaqtan also writes two weekly newspaper columns. Zaqtan earned a teachers' training degree from Jordan and worked as a physical education teacher. He has published several volumes of poetry and a novel, and his poetry has been translated in many journals and magazines.